Sometimes the Gospels have what appear to be incidental comments that, upon reflection, have great significance.
The last sentence of today’s Gospel is one of these times, “… He began to teach them many things.” We will never know for sure what Jesus taught the people “who were like sheep without a shepherd.” The comment, however, invites some speculation.
The two great commandments are a good starting point for our conjecture. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (See Mk 6:30-31). For a people looking for guidance, these two commandments capture the heart of all Gospel teaching.
Jesus not only made these commandments the center of all his teaching, but they also are the touchstone of his own Jewish tradition. The people would recognize immediately the references to Deuteronomy and Leviticus.
Once we have established these commandments as the heart and soul of everything Jesus taught, we can be more explicit about other teachings that he may have given to the people.
He could have been thinking of Jeremiah’s description of the shepherds who “mislead and scatter the flock.” The scribes and Pharisees, who taught contrary to the law, would certainly be a target of Jesus’ criticism. Neither group has cared for the people.
Jesus assures the flock without a shepherd that God will gather the remnant flock from all the lands to which he has driven them and bring them back to their meadow where they will increase and multiply. (See Jer 23:3.) This teaching criticizes evil leaders and displays the constant love of God for his people.
Jesus may also have taught a message of unity among the chosen people and among all peoples.
Examining the reading from Ephesians helps us understand this aspect of Jesus’ teaching. Paul has concerns for the necessary unity between Christian Jews and Gentiles. Jesus puts to death enmity between Jew and Gentile through his teaching concerning universal salvation.
According to Paul, Jesus came to preach peace to those who were far off and to those who were near, that is, to both Jew and Gentile. In his life, death, and resurrection, “…both Jew and Gentile have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph 2:18).
Even though we never really will know the content of Jesus’ instruction, these three brief speculations flesh out the brief statement about Jesus teaching the people many things.
It is likely Jesus taught the people who were like sheep without a shepherd about the two great commandments, genuine leadership in accord with the law and unity of all peoples.
Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.